After many years of little-noticed television guest appearances and one strong regular role on the HBO series Deadwood, John Hawkes emerged over the past decade as one of the movies' most interesting and most durable supporting players. He grounded filmmaker Miranda July's quirky Me and You and Everyone We Know. He deserved an Oscar for his tough, taciturn, but unexpectedly complicated Teardrop in the Ozarks indie Winter's Bone. He made a seductive but soft-spoken cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Even in a smaller turn as a concerned janitor, Hawkes made for a heart-gripping source of audience identification amid the harried professionals and mussed-up movie stars of Contagion.
And so, with an Internet Movie Database filmography that's 115 titles deep, it's nice to see Hawkes finally get a hefty lead role in The Sessions.
Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien, a real-life poet and journalist who was the subject of the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary short Breathing Lessons and who died in 1999, at age 48. O'Brien wrote a newspaper article about his attempt to lose his virginity at age 38, and that article serves as both the foundation and on-screen catalyst for this film.
O'Brien, who was stricken with polio at age 6, is exceptionally strong of mind, soul, and character, but his body just doesn't work. Mostly paralyzed, Mark lives his life in an iron lung and is only able — with aid of a respirator — to live outside of it for a few hours at a time. He's dependent on a paid assistant to wash, clothe, and feed him, and his only real confidant seems to be a progressive parish priest, Father Brendan (a beatific William H. Macy), who gives him the go-ahead to fire his assistant.
A younger, prettier new assistant (Annika Marks) drives Mark "to ecstasies of despair," and we learn that Mark's mind isn't quite the only part of his body that's functional. Soon after, Mark is offered work on an article about sex and disability. "There was no escaping," Hawkes says in voiceover. "A door had opened that I could not close."
And so Mark, gripped with equal levels of excitement and fear, seeks out the assistance of a sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who, through six sessions, will seek to take him on a journey from "body awareness exercises" to actual intercourse.
This is risky territory, in any number of ways, but The Sessions will surprise you. It's tender but never soppy, and neither Hawkes nor Hunt (a comeback to his breakout) ever strives for an "Oscar moment."
Hawkes plays O'Brien as a wry observer of his own fate. ("She held my penis. I haven't even seen my penis in over 30 years," Mark tells Father Brendan.) Hunt's Cheryl is a committed professional who approaches her unusual work with a well-modulated mix of sensitivity and matter-of-factness. Both are helped by a script from writer/director Ben Lewin that avoids artificial big moments or speechifying. Like Hawkes, Lewin is having a breakout of sorts himself after a long, varied career (his last directing credit: a 2003 episode of the television series Touched By an Angel). He's not much of a visual stylist, but The Sessions doesn't need that.
In a film world where a bare female breast has more ratings ramifications than a murder, The Sessions exhibits a rare maturity about the physical and emotional realities of sex. There's plenty of nudity, which is presented as entirely unremarkable. There's not a whiff of exploitation here.
The yearning for love and connection — physical and emotional — is particularly complicated for Mark but is a universal concern, and it ripples through the other characters in his orbit: Cheryl lays down ground rules — "I have a private life, and I want you to know that. This therapy is about you." — but her work with Mark affects her and complicates her homelife with loving husband Josh (an underused Adam Arkin). And the film is similarly generous and attuned to the emotional lives of other supporting characters.
Opening Friday, November 16th